Tag Archives: school

I Hate Grades

I recently gave a 2-minute nano presentation at 21st Century Learning’s Hong Kong TeachMeet, entitled I Hate Grades. It was a pleasure to be able to speak openly about something very close to my heart, and the reception from the assembled teachers was really positive. Unfortunately the event was not recorded, and one of my colleagues commented that he was said to have missed it. So, as the next best thing, I have done a Photo Booth recording of essentially the same content. Whilst it’s hard to be quite as dynamic and engaging in front of a laptop, the video still gets the key points across.

A broader view of my approach to assessment and curriculum, and how it compares to mainstream education is available in my previous post, The Educator’s Delusion.

Canned Response: Impolite Student

Rude BehaviourIn my dual role as ICT Coordinator and Teacher of ICT, I receive a lot of emails from students, invariably asking for help with some aspect of their computing environment. Whilst the majority of these responses are polite and well written, a there are those that are so informal they border on rude. In the past I have written an individual response to such students asking them to rewrite their message with the application of some manners.

I feel that this is the least I can do in the pursuit of raising students who are polite and able to interact positively with others. After several years of this, I have finally gotten around to creating a canned response for dealing with such cases. Hopefully students will get both the message, and the humour intended. So, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man:

Dear Esteemed Student,

Thank you for your recent email, in which you very concisely requested my help in relation to your educational and/or computing needs. Whilst your email has many redeeming features, such as its small on-screen footprint and low storage requirements, it lacked one especially critical element: manners.

In my experience there are certain social conventions to which one should adhere when asking for help with something. This is especially vital in cases where you actually hope for the person being asked (me, in this case) to agree to the act being requested (helping you).

To start with, it is best to begin your message with a polite greeting (Dear Mr. Parker). Having opened in this polite fashion, you may wish to pursue a little small talk (How are you, my esteemed teacher and guide? I do hope your cat Mr. Evil has recovered from his nasty turn and subsequent operation). Whilst small talk is strictly optional, some people find it to be a suitable social lubricant, aiding us all in the business of getting things done.

After stating your request in a polite manner it is best to end with an expression of gratitude (Thank you in advance for your kind help), before finally signing off (Regards, A. Student).

Seeing as most of your teachers were born prior to the invention of the World Wide Web (1991), and the subsequent downfall of polite social intercourse, you may also wish to consider using appropriate capitalisation and punctuation, whilst simultaneously restricting your use of TLAs (that’s Three Letter Acronyms BTW. OMG IRL I PWN TLAs N00B, LOL!!!).

If you are serious about receiving my help, please take just a little time to rewrite your original email with the aim of bringing it into line with these traditional norms of polite human interaction. I am sure that, with such a request in hand, I will gladly undertake to help you with your every ICT need.

Kind regards,

Mr. Parker

Image Credit: Rude Behaviour image by cisc1970 on Flickr, shared under CC BY-NC.

12 Hard Lessons

Stop SignThe following 12 ideas are lessons I think we really should be teaching students to help them become healthy, sane adults. But for whatever reason, they are hard to teach and even harder to learn. How can we get these messages across to students without sounding preachy or just plain weird? Of course, some of these items will be controversial. Colleagues, administrators, parents and students may at various times disagree with the content, or even with the idea of departing from the normal curriculum. However, despite the risks, I think that students really do need to be aware of these ideas, and who else is going to broach them? The question is how…any ideas?

1. Guns are not glorious Violence is ugly, the sound and sight of violent death is terrifying. Yet the media and gaming makes it glorious, and kids (especially boys) buy it wholesale. I went through this as a young boy, and maybe it is just part of growing up. Maybe if I watched The Empire in Africa as a boy I would not have been so keen on violence.
2. Masturbation is OK It is fun, reduces stress and helps us learn about our bodies and preferences. Everyone does it, yet few talk about it, and so kids grow up feeling guilty. I know I did, and it took a long time to work out that it was not “sick” or “wrong”.
3. Your body is a wonderland You might not look like a model, but make no mistake your body is a wonderland. And you only have one. Respect it, love it for what it is, exercise to improve it, look after it. Your body will age quickly, drugs will screw it up more than you can imagine.
4. God may not exist Whether your god is a super-intelligent being, the mystic power of the universe or something else, there is a good chance it may not exist. No matter how much faith you have, we just don’t know. God may be useful, but we need to be open minded about it. And please, let’s stop killing people because their god is not your god.
5. Being gay is OK I can’t imagine growing up and being gay: the feeling of having something to hide must make the shame of masturbation feel like a walk in the park. And yet, being gay is just like being different in most any other way: it is something that should not really matter.
6. Failure is great In school we punish failure, yet teachers almost all know that we learn through failure. What we want to avoid is failure from which no lesson is extracted. Almost nothing of worth is ever created without some kind of failure preceding it.
7. Porn is not sex Pornography may be intriguing, entertaining and arousing, but it is not realistic. You might say porn is to sex what Hollywood is to everyday life: a grotesque caricature full of impossibly beautiful people. But seeing as pornography is so readily available, it is easy for boys and girls to grow up thinking it is a realistic version of sex: they are generally starved of alternative, equally rich sources of information? What happens when you grow up expecting your partner to act like a porn star? What happens when you grow up expecting to behave like a porn star. Certainly this is not how to learn the art of making love.
8. Don’t rush, it’s not a race All kids want to grow up, and kids today want to grow up faster than ever. The sad truth is that whilst adulthood brings certain freedoms, it generally takes away more. On the whole, kids are far freer than adults, and this freedom needs to be enjoyed, cherished and used to its potential. Youth is easiest to appreciate once it is gone.
9. Good grades aren’t “it” You can get good grades, and still fail miserably in the real world. At the end of the day, grades are a poor way of representing some part of a student, and certainly don’t reflect the whole. Let your students know that if they get good grades that is fantastic, but what about the things which aren’t usually tested in school? What about sense of humour, charisma, social skills, passion, creativity and all the rest?
10. School will not make you “world ready” In line with point 9. above, we do learn a lot at school, but we are certainly not ready to face the world when we leave. I am not sure we are ever “complete”, but certainly we are no where near completion at the point of exiting school, nor on leaving higher education. Students expecting this (as I did at 18 and again at 21) will be sorely disappointed when reality smacks them in the face.
11. History is important Of all the subjects I undervalued at the school, history has to be the most important. Maybe at 12 I was just too young to get it, or maybe the pitch was wrong. What I know now is that history is my personal story, and explains who I am and why I am the way I am. It teaches us how not to behave (plenty of role models there), what to expect from life, and the consequences of not sharing and getting along. What could be more important?
12. There is no “normal” The Hollywood/advertising ideal of happy, wealthy, beautiful, funny, amazing people simply does not exist in the read world. At the end of the day, we all have our flaws, and we are all different. There is no “normal”, just lots of variation. Students expecting to be happy all the time in an age of widespread depression is asking for trouble. Students need to feel comfortable being “different”, so they can talk about problems, and learn to deal with them before they escalate.

Credits: Rainbow and Stop Sign image by sandy.redding on Flickr shared under CC BY-NC-SA.

Education Revolution

It seems as if there are plenty of people in the world who believe that education is “broken”. I totally disagree with this statement, and believe that there are plenty of excellent schools, students and teachers doing great things. However, I still believe there is a real need to revolutionise education, not because we are broken, but because we can be so much better than we are. A call to arms is easy, much easier, in fact, than deciding what we want  our goal should be. The question of “what should education be?” has limitless answers. What I hope to achieve here is to outline a brief answer of my own, primarily as a means to organise my developing thoughts whilst engaging other educators in discussion.

I firmly believe that if we want to revolutionise education we need to start at the end point and work back. Today’s end point is generally a set of exams which test students on a limited set of content in limiting and limited conditions. I believe in the usefulness of external exams as a means to fairly assess talent, but can’t get away from the fact that they need to be reworked to mimic ways of working in the real world. Really useful exams need to include the following elements:

  • Skills – Test skills, not content. This is not to say that content is not important, simply that in a connected and content saturated world what you can do is much more powerful than what you can do. Content will always be at the heart of knowledge, but we no longer need to focus on internalising content as much as we do on harnessing its power.
  • Ways of Working – Allow students to work in a variety of ways, such as individually and collaboratively, online and offline, open and closed.
  • Real – Ask students to solve authentic, relevant and contemporary issues which students might actually have an interest in. Isn’t this what we want our students to be doing in the real world? Isn’t this where they can be most useful to humanity, the planet, themselves and their communities?

With such an end point to education, we can free teachers from the arbitrary and artificial constraints of teaching content as discreet silos of information, and move to a system of skill acquisition. We can move from a system where students are forced to student content that does not interest them, to one where they can chose the content that allows them to learn the required skills. So, what might these essential skills for the modern world be? A start that seems logical (to me) is, in no particular order, with no particular form:

  • Open creativity (explicitly building on the work of others, output in variety of media inc. writing)
  • Close creativity (creating new ideas ourselves, output in variety of media inc. writing)
  • Working independently
  • Working collaboratively
  • Reflecting
  • Analysing
  • Consuming and comprehending media (would include traditional writing comprehension, but could be so much more)
  • Numeracy
  • Using the scientific method
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Taking action
  • Creating working solutions
  • Working physically (sports, labouring, traditional crafts, cooking)
  • EQ/Balance (meditiation, looking inward, yoga)
  • Discipline (self and imposed)
  • Passion

Of course, this shift would require a whole new approach to teaching and learning, offering a great chance to excise ideas long past their use by date, and introduce some fresh thinking. One possible way to structure school (suggested by my bus buddy Wayne) would be to have an intense cross-curricular core extended by electives to achieve skill learning while pushing students to pursue their interests. The core could be delivered in the morning in large lectures (with floating teachers for support), with a focus on required content, while the electives would be based on smaller groups with focus on skills and application. Ideally, the core would involve strong discipline in order to get the maximum value out of the minimum time, freeing up as much elective time to allow students to be more expressive and free. Students would study across year groups, breaking down many artificial barriers we have erected.

With this triumvirate of exam reform, skill focus and restructured schools, we could make education far more meaningful and enjoyable for all, without (I believe) ramping up costs. And who doesn’t want that?

I would love to work with teachers from around the world to build this into a working framework for education, raise some capital and who knows, maybe start a school some day. Anyone in?

Some Caveats & Notes

  • #edrevolution if you want to build up some Twitter discussions. Comment here too!
  • I am a secondary/high school teacher, so much of this might be more relevant to secondary than to primary.
  • These ideas are my own, except where noted, but my wife always helps me think, so I owe her credit. I am sure there is plenty of overlap with the writing and thinking of others, so I don’t claim these to be original in the sense of “first written” but they are my own in terms of “not taken directly from x”. Obviously I am constantly influenced by the background noise of the educational world.
  • I am indebted to the amazing stream of educational ideas that coming flooding from my Twitter-based PLN, where I hide under the moniker @rossdotparker. In particular @robheinrichs tweet on the words of Parker Palmer “Not teacher centered, not child centered, but learning centered” really go me thinking. Thanks also to @intrepidteacher for encouraging me to post early and build from comments.
  • Thanks to slinky2000 on Flickr for the image Bulb vs Hammer.

A Gibbon Is Born

Over the past few months I have been working to create a new open source project: Gibbon. At the risk of neglecting this blog and other projects, I have been putting in many, many hours to create a system which allows schools to better manage their data. Whilst there are plenty of commercial systems that do this, I wanted to create something that I could alter, and that other people might help me build. The aim of the system is to bring students, staff and parents together in understanding through the use of shared data. This takes the form of student demographic data, attendance, marks, units of work and lesson plans, which is mostly complete for students and staff. In the coming weeks I hope to add in more functionality, such as timetabling and the parent interface.

Food For Thought

This is a great poem that sums up the important relationships that exist between parent and teacher, home and school. I saw it on a classroom wall in Sydney today, and it really made me stop and think about the way I teach and how I might be able to involve parents in their children’s education. At current, as a casual teacher, there is not much I can do in this regard, however once I start permanent teaching it will be at the top of my agenda.  The thumbnail image chosen for this piece (Piles of Salt by Luca Galuzzi) ties nicely into a theme I keep coming back to: that we are all seperate but neither isolated nor independent (both from our environment and in relation to each other).

I dreamed I stood in a studio
And watched two sculptors there,
The clay they used was a young child’s mind
And they fashioned it with care.One was a teacher; the tools being used
Were books and music and art,
One a parent with a guiding hand
And a gentle, loving heart.

Day after day the teacher toiled
With touch that was deft and sure,
While the parent laboured just as hard
And polished and smoothed it o’er.

When at last their task was done
They were proud of what they had wrought,
For the things they had moulded into the child
Could neither be sold nor bought.

And both agreed they would have failed
If they had worked alone;
For behind the parent stood the school
And behind the teacher, the home.

David Bowen